Kentucky artist Jennifer Fairbanks prefers that those observing her plein air painting have hooves and paws, and she gets her way when she paints on the North Farm, part of Murray State University’s school of agriculture.

“Facing South, North Farm,” by Jennifer Fairbanks, 2012, oil on panel, 4 1/2 x 6 in.

“When I pull up there, the cows all come up to the fence and stare at me,” says Fairbanks. “So there’s always a little bit of an audience. My dog loves that, so it’s good for everybody.” Fairbanks says there are pigs just down the road, and horses, too. She likes the relative isolation, especially at the end of the day, when she paints the most often. “I’ve only seen another person there twice in all the times I’ve painted at the North Farm,” says Fairbanks.

A typical view at North Farm

The artist has a lot of sunsets painted at the location, and the reason is twofold. She was taking an antibiotic for a while that made her very sensitive to the sun, which mandated low-light plein air outings. And the sunset painting sessions also suited her work schedule and harked back to a practice she picked up during her tenure as a recipient of a Hudson River Fellowship. “We worked on carefully rendered paintings during the day, and then at night really pushed the paint around. It was my favorite time of day.”

“Cumulus Clouds Over North Farm,” by Jennifer Fairbanks, 2014, oil on panel, 4 3/4 x 7 1/2 in.

Likewise, now Fairbanks paints in her studio all day, and sunsets are her reward. “Night is like, my time,” she says. “I feel the same kind of looseness and freedom I felt when I was painting with the Hudson River Fellowship artists in the Catskills. Your head starts to hurt from all the work you’ve done that day. But the sunset is moving so fast that you can’t think too much. And there’s a whole spectrum of colors, much wider than you find in the daytime trees and rocks. Photos can’t begin to capture all those colors. You have to paint it right there. It becomes like your after-work drink.”

She says, “I am really addicted. Now I can’t stop. They are so much fun, and a nice counterpoint to what I’m doing in the studio. They are kind of therapeutic.”

“Grazing Cows at North Farm,” by Jennifer Fairbanks, 2014, oil on linen mounted to panel, 4 3/4 x 6 1/4 in.

Western Kentucky is not New York’s Catskill Mountains, however. The North Farm is just a few miles from her home, but Fairbanks pays for that with a dearth of mountains. Still, Kentucky is hilly, and variety is readily available. “The horizon line in the mountains was easier, because it was in the distance, not broken by trees,” she says. “The trees were in the foreground. Here, the sun would set behind a wall of trees, or, as the summer went on, it set behind a hill with fewer trees. It was a big challenge. How do you find a way to suggest the trees without getting too involved in the details? How do you keep them secondary to the clouds and the sunset?”

“Cumulus Clouds at North Farm,” by Jennifer Fairbanks, 2014, oil on panel, 5 x 10 in. Private collection

Fairbanks’s paintings show that she found the answers to those questions. We had one more question for her: What about sunrise paintings?

Fairbanks’s trusty companion 

“That would require me getting up earlier than I am comfortable doing,” she replied. Hear, hear!


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